Coaching High School Golf, Full Circle

When I bought my golf course in 2010, one of the first people that contacted me was the athletic director from the local high school. Their golf coaches had both recently resigned due to some health issues, and since ownership of the course had changed (to me), he wanted to know if the school could still use the course, and oh by the way, would I be interested in being the coach.

That was pretty much a no-brainer for me, as throughout my career in the golf business I’ve promoted junior golf through lesson programs, tournaments and leagues, as well as helping various high school coaches a little bit here and there. Since developing a junior golf program at my new course was sorely needed and a priority, coaching the local school team made a lot of sense.

I found out quickly that coaching a varsity sport at the high school level is a lot different from running a junior program at a golf course. For the most part, the kids make things pretty easy. They enjoy playing golf, they are eager to learn how to play better, and they enjoy the team aspect and have a lot of fun.

What can be a challenge is the mountain of paperwork, sometimes the parents (a little bit), but mostly league officials who don’t have much of a clue, and since it’s ‘just golf,’ they don’t put much effort into their position as league administrators.

As a rookie coach, there wasn’t much I could say. I was still figuring out how things worked in the Penobscot Valley Conference. But the longer I’ve been around the more vocal I am when important things aren’t addressed and are swept under the carpet. Needless to say, I don’t get any Christmas cards from the league officials. I don’t send any either.

Whenever I run into challenges, I catch myself thinking back to when I played high school golf and wondering how my coach would have handled different situations. Then I grin and shake my head, realizing how much I have turned out to be like Dave Williams, whom I played for during my freshman and sophomore years at West (Bremerton) High School.

I wish Dave were still alive. I’d love to be able spend an afternoon with him, play some golf, have a beer, and talk about all of his experiences when he coached high school golf. I think he would enjoy that. I think he would have some satisfaction knowing that he was a positive influence in my life, and that I followed a similar coaching path.

And much like a son talking to his dad about the challenges of raising kids, and the dad chuckling as he remembers having those same challenges with his son as he was growing up, I think Dave would get a big smile on his face and remind me what a pain in the backside I was when I played golf for him. I have no doubt that I drove Dave nuts.

Dave Williams and Joe Perdue, West High School varsity golf team picture, freshman year, 1975.

Dave Williams and Joe Perdue, West High School varsity golf team picture, freshman year, 1975.

For a long, long time, the two of us did not get along.

Dave could be pretty gruff, and he had a scowl to match. He didn’t have much of an ‘indoor voice,’ and his tolerance for ignorance and stupidity was minimal at best. Since he was the woodshop teacher at the high school that was understandable, as it only takes a split second for a kid that is screwing around with a saw or drill press to change his life forever.

The first time I remember meeting Dave was in the spring of 1974. I was in 8th grade, and since I’d had some problems with grades during that winter, my folks wouldn’t let me turn out for the 8th grade baseball team. Once I got the grades turned around, it was too late to turn out for the team, and I was playing a lot of golf, which is what I preferred to do anyway.

I had a couple of friends that I played golf with ‑ Allen Pod and Randy McIntyre ‑ and one spring day the three of us went to the high school and announced to the secretary in the main office that we wanted to play on the high school golf team.

Right now.

She smiled, then got on the intercom and a few minutes later, Dave showed up in the office. He explained to us that we’d have to wait until we were actually IN high school before we could play on the team, and said to make sure to see him when we started the 9th grade.

When spring came around during my freshman year, I had started to turn into a decent golfer for my age. I was breaking 80 a lot, was competitive in my age group and had won a couple of junior tournaments at Kitsap Golf &Country Club, where my folks had a membership. So when I qualified No. 1 on the high school team as a freshman, looking back on it, I was a little bit tough to be around. Humble was not in my vocabulary. I thought I knew it all, and nobody could tell me much of anything.

This did not sit well with Dave. He didn’t like braggarts. He didn’t like it when his players wore their emotions on their sleeves, especially after hitting a bad shot. And freshmen needed to earn their place in his program. Combine all of that, and the two of us had some problems.

His nickname for me my entire freshman year was ‘mouth.’ Looking back, it was well deserved. I never let anyone finish a sentence, including him, which almost always resulted in his scowl being directed my way. It irritated other players on the team, especially Steve Ottele, who was a senior and the best player on the team. It got so bad that Steve would ask to play No. 5 on the team during matches, just so he wouldn’t have to be in the same foursome with me.

Unfortunately I was oblivious to all of this, and it was several years later when Dave told me about it. By that time I had matured enough to be embarrassed about it, and to this day I get a little uncomfortable if I think about it.

In retrospect, I wish Dave would have sat me down and straightened me out. I’m not sure how much of it I would have understood, or how much of it I would have listened to. My ears weren’t working nearly as well as my mouth was.

Instead, he would embarrass me in front of the team anytime that I played poorly or did something stupid (which was often). And he would never give any acknowledgement when I played well. I realized much later that this wasn’t because he didn’t like me, he just needed to put me in my place, and that was his way of doing it. But at the time, his approach wasn’t working with me, and as the season went on, I was more and more miserable.

(I was recently talking to my younger brother Andy, who also played high school golf for Dave. He shared an incident when he hit a bad shot and had thrown his club at his bag. It wasn’t a helicopter throw, but it had a little emotion behind it. Unfortunately for Andy, Dave happened to see it. He pulled Andy aside, calmly told him it was an embarrassment to his golf program for a player to throw a club, and that if he did it again, he would pull him off the course, on the spot.

He didn’t call Andy out in front of anyone, but he made his point and enough of an impression on Andy that it never happened again. Andy found the contrast on how Dave handled the two of us interesting, and wondered if it was because of the difference between our personalities, or maybe because he had changed his approach a little bit.)

When we went to away matches, we all loaded into a school van and Dave was the driver. The team had a lot of fun on those road trips, and there was a lot of stuff that went on that wouldn’t be able to happen nowadays. We had a lot of wrestling matches on the way back from matches that were absolutely harmless, and sometimes Dave would get pulled into them.

Once, we were all really going at it on the way back from a match in Sequim or Port Angeles, and Dave pulled the van off to the side of the highway and jumped right in. Someone pulled off one of his shoes and chucked it across the highway. While he was retrieving it, one of the older guys on the team (I think it was either Ottele, Evan Pate or Rusty Tillou) started to drive away in the van. So there was Dave, shoe in hand, chasing after the van. We’d slow down the van, let him get close, then pull away again. We eventually let him back in, once we thought we’d pushed things as far as we could. Like I said, that couldn’t happen now, which in a lot of ways is too bad.

Dave worked hard to set up a lot of matches for the team. Outside of the matches in the Olympic League, he set up a lot of extra matches with the Tacoma schools in the Narrows League. Those matches didn’t count in the standings, but he wanted us to play as much as we could to get ready for any post-season competition we might qualify for.

I remember the first match that I played in as a freshman. It was at Allenmore in Tacoma, and it might have been against Lincoln and Mt. Tahoma. I was playing against two seniors, was really nervous and ended up shooting 83. I didn’t handle myself very well on the last hole, Dave happened to be watching, and he let me know about it. In front of everyone.

On the way home from that match, he announced that the person with the highest score had to buy milkshakes for everyone on the way back. I didn’t realize it at the time, but it was his way of putting me in my place, plus he was irritated with me because I was pouting after I’d hit a bad chip on No. 18.

I had about seventy-five cents to my name and told Dave that I couldn’t afford to buy everyone a milkshake. He said I could borrow it from him, but that the team would have to ‘open me up’ for not having enough money to take care of it myself.

At that point I was terrified. My dad hadn’t been working for a couple of months, and I had no idea how I was going to tell my folks that I needed $10 or $11 to pay for milkshakes. On top of that, I’d had some surgery on my tailbone during the past winter that hadn’t gone particularly well. The incision was so deep and so large the doctor couldn’t sew it up, and it had to heal on its own from the inside out. So for nearly a year, it would bleed and ooze, and the only way to keep it from getting all over my clothes was to use a women’s pad. As a 14 or 15-year-old kid, I was horribly embarrassed, beyond anything you can imagine, and was always scared to death that someone would find out. So when I was told I was going to be ‘opened up,’ I had no idea what that meant, and I was beside myself with fear. That made it even tougher to be around me.

As it turned out, ‘opening someone up’ entailed having your arms held back and someone lightly thumping on your sternum. Similar to Chinese water torture, it didn’t hurt but after two or three minutes of doing it non-stop, a person had enough of it.

And the milkshakes? I came to find out afterwards that Dave would treat the team out of his own pocket every so often.

So we got through that year and I played again during my sophomore year. Things still weren’t good between Dave and me. About two-thirds of the way through the season I’d had a bad match and he told me I needed to practice more, and he’d said it in front of everyone. In my mind all I ever did was work hard at my game every day, and I didn’t take what he said very well, and really felt bad. So I decided I’d had enough and quit the team. When the season was over, he wanted to talk to me, but I wanted nothing to do with him. It was several years before we had that conversation.

I was surprised to find out when I was a junior that Dave wasn’t going to be coaching the golf team that year. He’d turned it over to Chuck Semancik, who was the legendary football and wrestling coach at West. Chuck played some golf, but it wasn’t his best sport.

But with the team we had, he didn’t have to do very much coaching. He just had to get us to the matches on time and we pretty much took care of the rest. We won the Olympic League that year, then got pasted when we played against Lakes High School trying to get to the state tournament.

Once I got out of high school, Dave started coaching the golf team again, and coached until the school district had some budget problems, and cut the golf program. Around that time he had started to play a lot more golf, and was playing a lot of golf with my dad and his buddies, a group of about 16-20 guys that would play every Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday.

Dave also got involved with the Gold Mountain Men’s Club and served as its president for at least a year. That was in 1981 or 1982. I won the club championship at Gold Mountain in 1982, and then soon after got a PGA assistant’s job at Village Greens in Port Orchard.

Right after that, I was having a beer at Gold Mountain and Dave sat down at my table and said, “Well, I guess we won’t be having a repeat champion next year, since the jerk that won it this year just turned pro.” He was dead serious when he said it and I was getting this absolute sick feeling in my stomach. Then he got a big smile on his face and congratulated me on my new job. From that point on, the two of us got along great.

I played a lot of golf with Dave after that. One day we got to talking and I asked him why he quit coaching my junior year. He told me that he knew we had a good team and thought we had a chance to make the state tournament, and he didn’t want to get in the way of me playing. He was also a little bit sick of me.

I apologized to him for the way I was back then. He told me not to worry about it, but he doubted that his wife would ever forgive me. I’m not sure if he was kidding or not. But Shirley scared me more than Dave did, so I didn’t pursue it.

Dave passed away several years later after contracting a rare blood cancer. I was working at Gold Mountain at the time and the prior couple of years had started up an annual best-ball tournament. Scott Alexander suggested that we re-name the tournament in Dave’s memory, and the tournament is still going strong to this day. I think a portion of the proceeds from that tournament goes to fund a high school golf scholarship, or helps to fund the golf program at Bremerton High School. I cannot think of a more fitting way to remember Dave.

For years and years, I have carried a lot of guilt over what happened between the two of us when I played for his high school golf team. I wish that I would have been more mature at that age. I wish that I would have understood what he was trying to teach me back then. I wish that I would have understood the difference between criticism and a light jab to get my attention. To this day, I still feel bad that he gave up coaching the golf team for a couple of years, something that he really enjoyed doing, because of me.

My experience playing high school golf has shaped and influenced how I coach high school golf. I know that I can be a little grumpy, a little gruff, a little impatient, and my voice certainly does carry. I have an extremely low tolerance for ignorance from league administrators that keep their heads in a dark place. And I know that I drive the athletic director at the school absolutely nuts.

But I also know that I am sensitive to everything I say to the kids that play for me, and hopefully anyone that ever plays on one of my teams comes away feeling like it was a positive experience, and has been a good influence on how they live their life.

Dave Williams made me a better coach and a better person. Even though I didn’t realize it when I was younger, and it was a horribly painful experience for me at the time, he was a positive influence on my life, both during and after high school. It was an honor knowing him, and a privilege to be able to call him my friend.